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The philosophes were a group of eighteenth century thinkers, writers, and scientists who were convinced that reason, not prejudice and superstition, is the best guide for individuals and for society. All of them, including Voltaire, had long been working on the huge Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts...

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The philosophes were a group of eighteenth century thinkers, writers, and scientists who were convinced that reason, not prejudice and superstition, is the best guide for individuals and for society. All of them, including Voltaire, had long been working on the huge Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-1772; 17 volumes of text, 11 volumes of plates; partial translation Selected Essays from the Encyclopedy, 1772; complete translation Encyclopedia, 1965), the completion of which is considered one of the great intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment. However, on September 28, 1752, Frederick the Great of Prussia is said to have suggested to Voltaire that he compile a much shorter book in dictionary form, which would advance the same ideas but would be more accessible. Voltaire promptly got to work, submitting a number of articles to the king during the next several months, but after leaving Frederick’s court, he put the book aside and did not resume work on it until 1762.

In 1764, the book finally appeared. Published anonymously in Geneva under the title Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, it consisted of seventy-three articles. Voltaire was wise not to claim authorship; the book was burned in Geneva, at The Hague, and in Paris, besides being proscribed by the Holy Office in Rome. However, its popularity can be judged by the fact that it was reprinted three times under the same title, with numerous revisions and additions, until in 1769 it appeared as a two-volume edition entitled La Raison par alphabet (reason by alphabet), which contained 120 articles, including the long imaginary dialogue “A, B, C.” The 1769 edition, reprinted as Dictionnaire philosophique, is considered the final and complete version of the work. Peter Gay’s translation (Philosophical Dictionary, 1962) was the first complete, authentic edition available in English.

Form and Content

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Other than the fact that it is organized alphabetically, Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary bears little resemblance to a reference work. The form is idiosyncratic, the tone is informal, there are deliberate inaccuracies, and while claiming to be directed against intolerance, it reflects the author’s own prejudices.

One reason the Philosophical Dictionary can still fascinate readers is that Voltaire took such pains to vary the forms of his entries. Sometimes, as in “Abraham” and “Joseph,” he retells a story from the Bible, inserting his own comments. At other times, he relates an anecdote or a fable, like the make-believe myth about the Syrians in search of a toilet in “All Is Good.” “Atheism” is a fairly conventional essay, tracing the history of an idea, though it is considerably livelier than most other essays of the sort. By contrast, the entry called “Civil and Ecclesiastical Laws,” which purports to reproduce some notes found “among the papers of a lawyer,” is simply a series of short commands, each beginning with the word “Let.” A number of the segments are more like plays than essays in an encyclopedia or a dictionary. There are imagined dialogues between the author and the reader, as in “Virtue,” and others between two fictional characters, like the Indian and the Japanese in “Japanese Catechism.” Sometimes several people take part in a discussion, as in “A, B, C,” which is made up of seventeen conversations on as many topics.

Personal Observations

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Though his store of information is impressive, Voltaire does not pretend to distance himself from his work, as a scholar would. He makes no attempt to avoid personal references. Thus, he begins “Judea” by informing us that he has never been to that particular place and thanking God for it. Often he chats with the reader, as in the entry on “Soul,” in which he asks, “What, then, do you call your soul?” and presses his listener to “admit” that it is nothing more than “a power of feeling, of thinking.” At other times, he uses tone to preclude disagreement, as when he says at the beginning of the entry “Martyr,” “We are hoaxed with martyrs until we’re ready to burst out laughing.” It would be difficult to start an argument after that. Another example of Voltaire’s highly personal approach to his subject is his habit of digressing at will. For instance, in “All Is Good,” just when he is well launched into an attack on the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and his philosophy of Optimism, he decides to explain why he does not like to use quotations.

There are defects in the Philosophical Dictionary. Sometimes Voltaire is deliberately inaccurate. For example, as Peter Gay points out, he presents the Shechemites as victims, omitting any reference to the fact, clearly stated in Genesis, that they had incurred the wrath of the Hebrews by raping Dinah. Gay also notes that Voltaire alters the story of Ananias in order to make the Christians appear greedy.

Intolerance and Religion

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Moreover, for all his emphasis on tolerance, Voltaire clearly dislikes not just the Jewish faith but the Jews themselves. In “Jephthah or Human Blood Sacrifices,” for instance, Voltaire points out the bloody results of the Jewish law and suggests that one judge a people not by their view of themselves but by their records. He applies that standard to such great Old Testament figures as Abraham, David, and Moses, all of whom he finds less than admirable. In “History of Jewish Kings and Chronicles,” he attacks the idea that it was God who wrote the history of the Jewish people, then comments sarcastically that if God were indeed their historian, the Jews would be a superior people, and we should “prostrate ourselves” before any Jewish “peddler” who happens along. Voltaire’s comments about the Jews, past or present, are always waspish, whether his subject is an eighteenth century peddler or the complaining Hebrews he describes in “Moses” as “unjust children of Jewish vagabonds.” There can be no doubt about the anti-Semitism of someone who writes, in “Cannibals,” that the Jews might as well have been cannibals, for that habit was all they needed to make them “the most abominable [people] on earth.”

However, unlike many of the Christians of his time, Voltaire did not loathe the Jews because they had rejected Christ or were responsible for his death, as the ignorant liked to think, but because they had provided the basis of Christianity. Voltaire had to annihilate the Old Testament before he could demolish the New Testament and accomplish his stated goal, to wipe out “infamy.” Voltaire was understandably careful in defining his opponent. “Infamy,” he indicated, was made up of superstition, or any belief beyond the “worship of a supreme Being,” as he defines it in his article, and fanaticism, which he compares to insanity. Significantly, there is no entry under “Christ” in the Philosophical Dictionary, and “Christianity,” which is subtitled “Historical Research into Christianity,” claims merely to look at evidence for Christian dogma and in the process to present a history of the Christian church. Voltaire had to be careful; as he points out in the “Inquisition” article, it was not difficult to be burned at the stake. However, it is generally agreed that what Voltaire really meant by infamy was not just superstition or fanaticism but Christianity itself. Throughout the Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire makes it evident that he thinks Christianity is a fraud, based on superstition and perpetuated by fanatics and fools, and that the results of the religion’s influence are oppression, persecution, intolerance, corruption, hypocrisy, the denial of liberty, and general misery.

Voltaire displays his contempt for the God of the Jews in such articles as “Genesis” and “Jephthah or Human Blood Sacrifices.” In fact, whenever he talks about characters and events from the Old Testament, Voltaire takes pains to picture the God revealed in its pages as jealous, bloodthirsty, unjust, and totally irrational. No sensible person, Voltaire suggests in “Ezekiel,” can imagine worshiping a deity who commands a prophet to eat bread smeared with cow dung. The God Christians worship is no better. Though he is called a God of love, he condemns to eternal damnation most of the human race, those who have never heard of him, those who doubt some Church dogma, and those who in some way defy the Church, whom he permits to rule the Christian world. What Voltaire thinks of the institution that purports to do God’s will is evident in his essay “On Popery,” as well as in his article entitled “Inquisition,” in which he defines his subject as an “admirable and wholly Christian invention to make the pope and the monks more powerful and turn a whole kingdom into hypocrites.”

A Noninterventionist God

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The God Voltaire worships is identified in “Creed” as a creator and a beneficent deity who does not discriminate among his children but has provided for all alike. He does not intervene in their affairs, for he has given them reason and “moral principles” so that they can govern their own conduct. Voltaire admits that he himself has no answer for the problem of evil. That issue alone would prevent him from believing either in a Christian Providence or in the Optimists’ deity, whose actions are always for the best. At least, if God does not intervene in this world, one cannot accuse him of being unjust. The best Voltaire can do is to admit that some evils cannot be prevented—the Lisbon earthquake, for example, or what in “War” he lists as two “gifts” of “Providence,” famine and plague. However, the third great source of human misery, war, is under human control, and therefore it can be eradicated.

In “Philosopher,” Voltaire outlines what God expects of individuals and of rulers alike. They are to devote themselves to virtue, thus setting an example for those who look up to them. They can work to prevent crime and to promote harmony, thus making their own lives and the lives of all who come into contact with them as happy as possible, given the limitations set by the Deity when he created the world.

The Dictionary’s Impact

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Though most readers think of Voltaire as the author of the philosophical tale Candide, the Philosophical Dictionary is his most comprehensive work and an invaluable revelation of his mature thought. Given its scope and its technical brilliance, it may indeed be his masterpiece.

Just as his Philosophical Dictionary embodies his view of the world and its institutions, so Voltaire himself embodies the spirit of his age. For this very reason, it is difficult to assess his influence. He was simply one of a number of philosophes who produced the Encyclopedia, for example. Similarly, though he risked his life to save those persecuted by state and church, he was not alone in such efforts. His works helped prepare the way for the American Revolution and the French Revolution, but he himself was not a republican but a monarchist, and he would never have approved of turning over the government to an ignorant mob. His ideal ruler would have been a benevolent philosopher-king.

However, even though one cannot identify an event that occurred or a literary work that was written solely as the result of Voltaire’s writings or specifically because of his Philosophical Dictionary, he did make a difference. His crusade against “infamy” certainly influenced those who wrote the U.S. Constitution to make sure that church and state remain separate, while his campaign against tyranny, whatever its source, continues to inspire those who believe that the rights of individuals are always more important than the welfare of a powerful majority or the advancement of a powerful institution.


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Additional Reading

Aldington, Richard. Voltaire. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1925. Although old, this work remains one of the standard biographical-critical works. Part 1 (chapters 1-10) serves as a general biography of Voltaire. Part 2 (chapters 11-19) examines Voltaire as poet, dramatist, literary critic, historian, biographer, philosopher, pamphleteer, and correspondent. The volume also contains a chronological listing of Voltaire’s works by genre, followed by a list of the English translations up to the time of publication and a select biography.

Ayer, A. J. Voltaire. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986. This volume, by noted philosopher Ayer, takes a closer look at the philosophy and life of Voltaire.

Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Age of Voltaire. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983. Part of the noted series by husband and wife historians Will and Ariel Durant. Covering Voltaire as well as his historic contemporaries, this volume focuses on the philosophies who planted the seeds for the French Revolution. The Durants show how Voltaire’s thinking influenced the rise of the Enlightenment.

Gay, Peter. Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as Realist. 1959. 2d ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. A work of intellectual history that attempts to trace the psychological, social, and intellectual origins of Voltaire’s ideas. The author portrays Voltaire’s politics as realistic and humanely relativistic; he argues that Voltaire’s humane sympathies failed him only in the case of his anti-Semitism.

Gray, John. Voltaire. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Mason, Haydn. Candide: Optimism Demolished. New York: Twayne, 1992. This work presents a study of Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide.

Mason, Haydn. Voltaire: A Biography. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. Organized according to seven periods in Voltaire’s life. Mason states that he has not attempted a comprehensive treatment of the life of Voltaire, which would easily require ten volumes. Instead, he has attempted to capture the essence of the man as revealed under the pressure of circumstances. Contains a helpful chronology and a select bibliography.

Richter, Petyton E., and Ilona Ricardo. Voltaire. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A general portrait of the philosopher and his beliefs. Solid introduction for newcomers to Voltaire.

Torrey, Norman L. The Spirit of Voltaire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938. Argues for and seeks to document Voltaire’s moral integrity while granting that a certain duplicity was a necessary condition of his life and work. Concludes with a long chapter on Voltaire’s religion, probing whether he was a deist, a mystic, or a humanist.

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